The Portland Trail Blazers In no way do they want to help the extra guard this season. The franchise will open the 2022-23 season with Damian Lillard, Inverney Simmons, Josh Hart and Gary Payton II as clear rotation pieces in the two smaller positions.
But what about Keon Johnson?
A potential young man has arrived in Norman Powell and Robert Covington’s deal with Los Angeles Clippers in February and played a major role in the Blazers’ last summer league championship.
Over the past week, both Lillard and coach Chauncey Billups have highlighted the 20-year-old as an outstanding player in pre-season training, calling for his development and energy. There was no need to drop Johnson’s name but the young guard was clearly deserving of praise.
“Keun Johnson, to me he has been the most impressive player from last year to this year, his wise development and the way he approaches the game.
“I think all the vets noticed he was here and he was trying to compete. He did everything I asked him to do.”
But getting the former Tennessee producer on the field this season will be a challenge. Lillard and Simons were boosted as starters with Hart and Payton II locks to get decent minutes off the bench.
Despite this barrier, Johnson has hands-on skills to deliver on this team. At 6’4, the versatile guard features athleticism, blasting, scoring, defending, on-positioning, handling and facilitation.
Johnson appears to be at the top of the Clippers’ wish list in 2021 NBA draft nightprompting them to deal with New York Knicks To move to four points to secure the young shooting guard with the twenty-first choice. why not? The 41.5-inch vertical jump in the group would have prompted all 30 franchises to take at least a second look.
In 15 outings with the Clippers, Johnson saw a mediocre nine minutes into the game, setting up stats that wouldn’t contribute to that piece and shouldn’t be used to prove anything.
The Blazers were tackled alongside Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow and a second round days before the deadline, the sporting guard was given a chance when the Portland tank started to roll. He’s scored 25 minutes, 9.7 points on nearly 35 percent behind the arc, 2.2 boards, 2.1 assists and 0.8 steals in 22 games with the Blazers dropping the standings.
With the Blazers season ending in mid-April, Johnson is up and running and by the time Las Vegas Summer League Came in early July, was ready to go. Johnson contributed 14.2 points in 33.3 percent from three shooting points, 3.9 boards, two assists and 1.8 steals in what became the franchise’s second summer league title.
Fast forward to Media Day Monday as the sophomore shooting guard ran on his summer priorities, naming conditioning and improving off-court habits to become a better pro. He worked on his body and defence, highlighting an emphasis on capturing players at 94 feet, using his natural instincts and 6’7 wingspan to shield opposing defenders at the point of attack.
It’s nice to work hard in the off-season but how does that make him on the field?
Josh Hart on his way to moving?
One of the ways Johnson might have a chance to see off minutes of junk time is to potentially trade in the middle of the season for Josh Hart’s expiring contract. Hart appears to be one of the main candidates on the list to trade. It offers the other 29 teams a range of valuable skills.
General Manager Joe Cronin should expect Hart not to pick the 2023-24 player option and the resulting salary increase will be due the following summer. Thus, it is clear that trading Hart on the deadline for a small presenter or consequences center would be a wise choice while also removing the guard backlog.
Just to be clear, I’m not for one second suggesting Johnson could fill the 20-25 minutes Hart would leave vacant. Maybe the majority of those minutes go to Payton 2, maybe Shaydon Sharp or even Nasser Little. But it also opens the door for the Blazers coaching staff to give Johnson at least a serious look.
While the Blazers don’t have a clear small start forward, they aren’t exactly shallow in position with Little, Hart, Justise Winslow and Payton II all able to contribute. The problem is that Hart and Payton II are going to spend some time in the backcourt with Winslow potentially taking the power forward and even some center minutes as well.
This time opens behind Little, and while Johnson was the smaller of the three standing 6’4, his aforementioned 6’7 wingspan and raw athleticism might be enough to fill the void when necessary. But it depends on the match, you don’t put Johnson on LeBron James.
Injury and load management
The topic no one dares bring up, but injuries do happen and if one or more Lillard, Simons, Hart and Payton II falls – hopefully not for long periods – doors could open. Last season, Johnson demonstrated proficiency in playing NBA minutes, even if the team was deteriorating, and if players were temporarily injured, Billups might consider Tennessee’s best player.
Depending on how well the season starts, there could also be opportunities for 32-year-old Lillard to play a game here and there. In this scenario, Simons might be pushed to the guard post, where Johnson would jump into the starting unit, so as not to disturb the spin.
Sharp vs Johnson
One of the main obstacles to Johnson playing meaningful minutes is the current state of the Blazers. The franchise seems keen to make last season’s Tanks an isolated incident as Cronin brought in veterans Jeramy Grant and Payton II to aid Lillard in a battle with the elite of the Western Conference.
The award for said tank was the seventh overall from the selection of Shaedon Sharpe who is also vying for a similar role in the rotation and by all reports has also been impressed. A team trying to compete isn’t likely to be playing two raw young prospects unless they’re able to get up quickly.
Honestly, you have to assume Sharpe got the initial shot in rotation minutes based on his reported skill set and the assets the Blazers used to disable him.
A note on the value of Johnson’s private trade
While Hart’s name is likely to appear in commercial discussions in late January and early February, Johnson’s entry-level deal could also be tempting to rebuild franchises with loopholes in their respective guard cycles. But he will likely need court time to ensure the Blazers get equal value in return, which suggests he won’t be transferred any time soon.
Johnson’s meager $2.6 million deal (team options in 2023-24 and 2024-25) will almost certainly be restricted, as the Blazers are unlikely to return a player with a score at a similar price. Perhaps, pairing Johnson and Hart in a more successful deal, but that kind of deal also turns Portland’s buildup into a serious backcountry scarcity.
Johnson will have a future in the NBA. Whether it’s with the Blazers or not, while the rave reviews about his progress on Media Day are promising, his path to real playtime will be a challenge.
The franchise’s poor start, injury, deals, and disappointing Shaedon Sharpe seem his best ways to play. Great for him, not so good for the Blazers.
But it’s also in the franchisor’s best interest to bring him onto the court whenever they can either make him contribute to the win or raise his own commercial value as the Cronin and the Blazers continue to build this roster.